- Player: Thomas Schmidt
- Company: TomTom Telematics
- Position: MD
- Visit: telematics.tomtom.com/en_za/webfleet/
To be a successful company in today’s fast-paced and ever-changing market, you need three key ingredients: Access to markets (which starts with products that clients need), short-term agility and long-term goals.
Consider the epic success of Apple. Steve Jobs was hungry and fast — he drove his teams to achieve more in less time. But he also had a long-term vision that directed the business’s trajectory. True innovation is the result of looking five to ten years into the future, and laying the groundwork now for where the company needs to be then.
TomTom started out in 1991 as a software provider for Palm Pilots, long before the Internet was a thing, or GPS had been opened for civil usage. Today, the listed company’s latest acquisition is Autonomous, a business that focuses on navigation systems for driverless cars. Over the course of almost three decades, TomTom has consistently focused on what comes next: What do consumer and business clients need, where will technology take us, and what will be possible in the near future, enabling greater efficiencies?
Thomas Schmidt, MD of TomTom Telematics, unpacks the five lessons TomTom has learnt while developing world-class solutions for the consumer and B2B markets worldwide.
1. Focus on the problem you’re solving, not on the product you produce
Companies that are too fixated on what they do, instead of where technology and markets are heading, will often find themselves left behind. The most common example is Kodak, who refused to see the dangers digital photography posed. Instead of seeing themselves as a company that helped people capture moments, they saw themselves as manufacturers of films and cameras. The rest of course, is history.
Robust businesses reinvent themselves, adjusting solutions to fit the market and making use of technological breakthroughs. “In 1991, the founders of TomTom launched a company called Palmtop,” says Thomas.
“They designed and created the software for digital organisers. In principle, it was like a smartphone with no connectivity, and included a digital bible, a digital cookbook, a personal organiser, a calendar and a whole host of other features. By the late 90s it even included a digital map, which they had licensed through Tele Atlas, a Belgian company that developed very basic digital maps.”
Here’s how it worked: You bought a PalmPilot, purchased the map software, uploaded it to your device, and then purchased the cables and mountings that you’d need to instal the whole system in your car. It was complicated and something that only techies were really trying out, but it triggered something in the TomTom (at that stage Palmtop) team, who recognised that if they could remove the tech hurdles to get there, they’d democratise navigation.
The company had been a forerunner in the personal organiser software business. Based on where they believed the market was heading however, they began to shift their focus to hardware, and began manufacturing personal navigation devices (PNDs), complete with digital maps licensed through Tele Atlas.
By 2003 the business had been rebranded to TomTom and their first device, the TomTom Go, was launched. From there the business consistently grew 400% year-on-year, and an IPO was concluded in May 2005.
In hindsight, the shift looks simple, but in reality, it’s never easy to reinvent yourself as a business, unless you’re agile, adaptable, and willing to focus on the best solution, rather than what your current product stack looks like.
2. Always look ahead
Great visions always precede technological solutions. If they didn’t, nothing would ever progress or change. The companies capable of those visions become the trailblazers and game-changers that shape industries, solve problems and drive greater efficiencies.
The evolution of TomTom’s dynamic map data is a perfect example of this mindset in action, because the team kept asking what would make their product more useful to consumers. They had the device, and a digital map. What they didn’t have was mobile data.
Instead, Tele Atlas had vans driving around, capturing everything. It was time consuming, expensive, and meant maps were always out of date. They also weren’t dynamic.
“When you consider the fact that 15% of a map’s data changes yearly, we knew there was so much more we could do with this product if we just had the right tools, and developed appropriate solutions,” explains Thomas.
TomTom’s team started by looking to the future: What did they want this product to look like? The answer was simple: They wanted a navigation system that was dynamic and up-to-date. If anything happened, a user would know within minutes. This would include traffic, accidents, traffic lights that weren’t working, delays — anything and everything that would add value to a motorist or business with vehicles on the road. Today, this includes data drawn from how a vehicle is operating and how the driver is performing, right through to its location with regard to a dynamic map, and the capability to send companies and clients up-to-date information.
The technology that has made all this possible came after the idea of what the team wanted to achieve. With the right starting point, they were able to develop solutions that were possible. “We had millions of units on the road. We created a functionality that allowed users to update information on the map when they plugged it into their computers to update the software.”
The problem was that it was a slow process. By the time TomTom gathered the data, sent it to Tele Atlas, and the changes were implemented and released in an update, months had passed. Consumers lost interest because it took so long to see a change.
So, the team went back to the problem to engineer a different solution. “We went back to the data we were collecting, and started comparing that data with the map. What were speed averages on different roads? Based on this, we could predict times of the day when you could expect traffic congestion and delays. We also paid attention to roads on the map that no one used, or areas with no roads that nevertheless had traffic. These were flagged as out-dated areas on the map, and we could send vans to check those areas only. It was all based on historical data, but we were adding more information to the map on a continuous basis.”
The next component to be added to the mix was telematics. Thomas’ company, Data Factory, was purchased by TomTom in 2005. “Telematics brought more data early on to TomTom. This was real-time data that could be deployed elsewhere. In the early days we were using trunket radios to capture data, but it was all fed into the system. An average car spends less than an hour on the road each day. Compare this to six hours for a business car, and up to 12 hours for a truck, and you’ll get a view of how much data we were actually collecting. The trick was to continuously ask how we could use the data, and what we could do with it. It was not yet a dynamic system, but we were constantly moving forward and improving. We kept asking, ‘If we had this, what could we do with it?’”
TomTom also made another decision, and offered to purchase Tele Atlas in 2008. “We recognised that the future was fresh, up-to-date data. If we owned the maps, we can streamline the process. Two different companies, even working in partnership, create a lot of delays.
“Increasing efficiencies wherever you can is in our DNA. That’s what we do for customers. And it’s why we’ve been able to offer our customers up-to-date dynamic maps that are data-rich and create a seamless customer experience.”
3. Adapt to the future
This takes the ideal of looking ahead a step further. On the one hand, looking ahead is focused on the lane you’re currently in, and envisioning how you can change customer lives. But it’s also about paying attention to how the world is changing, and what the future will bring.
TomTom is currently a software and hardware developer. The business has four divisions: TomTom Consumer, TomTom Automotive, TomTom Licensing and TomTom Telematics. In each case, hardware and software solutions are deployed to drive efficiencies and cost savings, from consumers with a TomTom device in their vehicles, cars with onboard systems designed by TomTom, telematics systems that track a business’s entire transport and logistics solution, to the map data as one of the sources for Apple’s map solution.
But TomTom is looking much further than the solutions it currently offers. “TomTom democratised navigation, and today it’s available in multiple different ways; your phone, a device, your car. We understand this and move with the times. We expect technology disruption to go on and things to change even faster in the future. Today we manufacture devices. We don’t believe we will still be doing this in the long-term future. How our solutions will be accessed will change. We are also now investing heavily in the navigation systems and maps autonomous cars will use. This isn’t a big revenue stream for us now, but it will be incredibly important in the future, and we will have solutions ready.
“To stay alive, you need to be smarter, faster and the master in your specific area of competence. At our core we bring customers, data and development together. It’s always about the best experience and solutions.”
4. Be fast, agile and adaptable
Even though TomTom is a listed company, its controlling shareholding rests in the hands of four people — all of whom are entrepreneurs. “TomTom’s original founders still head up the business and drive its vision, and the four different business units are run by MDs who are entrepreneurial as well,” explains Thomas, who is one of those MDs, and who by his own admission could never be a standard employee.
“Data Factory was the third business I built, and I sold it to TomTom in 2005 because I knew this was the best way to achieve international growth. 12 years later I’m still here as MD of the Telematics business because our CEO and founder, Harold Goddijn, convinced me to stay and grow the exciting business unit. The fact that we’re given so much autonomy to grow each business unit as a company makes us fast, agile and adaptable. It’s the essence of this business. We all have a fiduciary duty to our shareholders, but we also have long-term visions that allow us to be trailblazers in our industry.
“We’re not executives who begin to implement projects and then leave. We’re focused on long-term, industry changing visions that will change the way our customers operate and do business. That’s what gets me up in the morning and keeps me constantly engaged and excited.”
The business is also run on a system of flat hierarchies, which Thomas believes is a key ingredient to TomTom’s success. “No single giant can know or understand everything. To remain relevant, businesses need fresh ideas, and these come from open and collaborative teams. As the leader, you don’t need to come up with all of the ideas — but you do need to be open to fresh thinking, even from your juniors. Have an open door policy, and listen to ideas when they are shared with you. That’s how you push the envelope.”
5. Give customers what they need, not what they want
Listening to customers is important, but you also need to look beyond their current needs if you’re going to be a game- changer — both in your own industry, and in terms of what you can do for your customers.
“Take note of your customers’ pain points and deliver solutions that create value, but you can’t innovate if you only listen to what your customers want. You need to be delivering to their needs, otherwise you’re just an executor and not an innovator.
“It’s up to you to jump to the next step that they can’t see yet, and often don’t even realise is possible. Customers are focused on the now — we need to be looking five years ahead.”
How do you stay ahead of the curve though? Thomas believes it’s all about asking the right questions.
“Consider the question, ‘What if we had unlimited energy for free in the world?’ So many people stop there and don’t ask further, because it’s seen as an impossibility. And that’s what kills innovation. If you remove that obstacle, and instead look at what this would mean for the world, you can start shaping a different future.
“So, what would it mean? It would mean an unlimited water supply, because we could easily make drinking water from salt water, at little to no cost. What does unlimited drinking water mean? An unlimited food supply, because water is the biggest restrictor. Once you start asking the right questions, you reach a future that you want to be a part of and make happen — and that’s when you start finding solutions.
“Solar is already doing this, at 50% of the cost of other alternatives. The latest technology delivers at 50% of the price, and it was developed because the right questions are being asked.
“This is how we operate. We are always dreaming about what we could do. This allows us to create solutions. They don’t always work, but we’re hungry, and when we fail we fail fast, learn the lessons we need and push on. We’re always heading in the right direction, and changing the shape of what’s possible.”